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tone

I always think that a poem “off the page” becomes an “act” of language rather than a poem, a thing made out of words. As such, its visual appeal (or lack thereof) is lost, but its actions are magnified—how it moves within the act of being uttered. It is no longer a poem, but an act of language. By this way of thinking, even a modernist or post modernist poem—fully constructed for its visual as well verbal appeal, even a poem as a “made thing” becomes an “act of language” when read aloud. Such poems often suffer when translated from the realm of the page to that of the heard text. They were not meant to be heard. They are of the cognitive brain, and their affective, animal body is absent except as a structure of intelligence. This does not mean they become bad poems, but it does mean they are at least, flawed acts of langauge. They have a paucity of repetition, rhetoric, and tone. They have little or no mimetic force. The page poem is not poetry. Rather it is a construct in which poesis may or may not occur. By the same token, neither is the uttered poem poetry. Poetry does not reside in either page or oracular form; poetry resides in something both caused by and beyond its words and this is true even when the poem is fully on the page as words. I call this something presence.

I strive for presence in my work—not for visual or oral appeal, but for a presence beyond the overt trickery of either. I am known for being a good reader of my poetry, but, if you listen to me on tape, you would not find my reading voice to be at all remarkable. I do not use acting or oral chops. I am actually reading with a far from mellifluous voice—but it is always a “Speaking voice.” It is the voice of my consciousness. There are three basic kinds of speaking voice:

1. The voice aware of itself speaking, and, thereby, speechifying. This voice will include various devices of rhetoric such as amplitude, hyperbole, adynaton, apostrophic address, extended metaphor, anaphora, rhyme, alliteration, cadence. Slammers, at least over the last few years, are prone to what I call “shot gun” metaphors—a series of extended metaphors that decorate a basic issue oriented trope—very much like menology, especially monology as it was evolved post Lenny Bruce—humor as recognition and identification rather than as punch line or story. Slammers have also fallen into a definite slam cadence, one which irritates the hell out of me unless it is done with some nuance. But the voice aware of itself speaking pre-dates slam. It is the voice of the orator, the con artist, the preacher, the rhetorician. It is exactly this voice that modernism and postmodernity sought to mute. Now onto a second form of speaking:

2. The voice as conversational lyric—the poet’s consciousness moving, and ruminating, and allowing an audience to overhear. This “voice” has been a dominant entity in poems since Coleridge and Wordsworth. Ginsberg, Stevens, wildly dissimilar poets, employ the conversational lyric. it may be formal, or casual, confessionalist or impersonal and vatic, but it has the one shared quality of being “overheard”—a voice caught in mid-consciousness. Such a voice enables the poet to mix registers of speech.

3. The voice as relaying information—without attitude, simply reading. Somehow this is considered the most honest voice by certain aficionados of poetry (especially those who hate spoken word or slam) but, in its radical rejection of any tone or attitude, it, too, is a literary conceit.

I have used all these forms of “Speaking,” sometimes in the course of a single poem, but I do not “perform” poems. I read them. They exist as scripts for me, and I often change them as I read—much as a musician might decorate a note, or leave out a chord passage depending on the mood of the moment.

So I am not a performative poet, and certainly not a slammer, but I am a reader of poetry—meant to have a speaking voice, a voice that often shifts according to my consciousness. I construct my line on the page as I am writing the poem, not for visual appeal, but as a sort of flow chart that changes and shifts in such a way that, if read out loud, the presence of a speaking voice will be the result.

I bring all this up because yesterday, after I had read at the West Caldwell magazine festival, a very nice woman named Bess came over to compliment and praise me. She did not buy my book because she already had it. She asked me where the poem “Poem for Advent” appeared. She said: “I loved it.” I smiled: “it’s right in the book you already purchased.” She looked surprised. “I read that book cover to cover… I’m sure I would have remembered it…” Then she paused and continued: “of course, it’s the way you read your poems. You’re such a good reader… you should do a recording… whatever you do, it’s not on the page.” I said: “you’re both right and you’re wrong. It’s both on the page and out loud, but it’s really neither. The force does not come from my performing the poem, or reading it with any special talent. My only talent as a reader is that I’m clear, and change speeds as I read… But thank you.”

This troubled me. Was “Poem for Advent” only good when I read it? The poem received a great crowd reception, and yet it was not a poem you would typically read to wow a crowd. It was not that I read it well, but rather that what I had written on the page (and always on the page) had managed to create a presence, a speaker. The speaking voice was not lost even in the page version. I write my poems as I think—they move with my thoughts. Now I want to analyze that poem as if it were not mine to see why it might go over well with a crowd of listeners—most of whom were published poets in their 30′s, 40′s and beyond.

The world takes us at its leisure…

This is the first line, not exactly a thrilling hook, but there are things going on here. First, it’s an opinion, a wager, a statement. Second, it does not yield its meaning immediately. What does it mean for a “World” to take us at its leisure? I am using personification, ascribing to the world a character. Taking is an aggressive act, whether it is sexual or a species of theft. To do so at its leisure implies a certain toying with us. Of course I was not thinking any of this when I wrote that first line. I was probably not thinking at all, but “sounding” my way into thought. I never have an idea I translate into poetry. I have sounding I shape, and within those shapes the thoughts of the poem begin to form. In this case, I had a title first (unusual for me) so I consider any poem that has a title first to be somewhat occasional—to serve the occasion, in this case Advent. If you are a reader of the Gospel, you will know we do not “belong” to this world, but this is my instinctive, rather than premeditated first act. Sound wise, it contains Uh, Er, long A, Uh, aah (the gag vowel), small i, high e, and er again. World and leisure share chiming sounds. IN terms of vowel sounds, it is only missing the long u as in ooh, the long oh as in boat, and the sound, Ah as in Ska. Note the dentals as in d at the end of world, t in takes, at, and its. So, in sonic terms, a lot more is happening than I might think until now. Still, this is not a poem seeking an immediate bang. I think takes is a strong verb. Much poetry on the page is wary of strong verbs. Floaty gerunds have somehow become more “lyrical.” Beats me, but let’s continue:

The world takes us at its leisure
by increments of infamy
or “virtue.”

Now the listener can’t see the quotes around virtue, but increments of infamy is a distant cousin of “weapons of mass destruction” or jack boot of the state. It uses the common sound of “in” as Joyce did with agin bite of inwit. In point of fact, Joyce is secretly hidden in my ear along with Stevens and Williams because I spent years reading them (and not out loud, though, sometimes). The ur sound serves as a rhyming function (world, leisure, virtue), but, as with hip hop, it is never in a predictable position. It’s sneaky rhyme, so sneaky I have no idea I am doing it. This helps create a speaking voice because people are often rhyming without knowing it. Still, no metaphors, no meter, and nothing that sounds like common speech exists here. The first two lines are 8 syllables, but not metered.

In short, there is nothing in this poem so far that makes it spoken word friendly. There are several unusual phrases that get developed later, there is a play with the idea of conning, and evangelizing, and the poem moves into the darkness of advent, into a sort of freely improvised meditation on what is genuine and holy and what is false in terms of the spirit, but nothing in this poem is overtly oratorical. If I had to think what makes audiences like this poem, it is probably the presence of a consciousness moving from thing to thing, yet never forgetting to circle an intention which is to meditate upon the false and the genuine, and more so, upon the merge points between them. At its close, it becomes a plea to God: Maranatha. It employs the mystical oxymoron of “despairing more deeply into joy. Somehow, I am able to convey my sense of struggle with faith and conscience. I also compare the “lascivious” grin of an old Chrysler to Burt Lancaster’s smile in Elmer Gantry, and that is a good simile, a very good simile, and visually accurate in an odd way. There are moments of anaphora, and alliteration, especially toward the end when the poem reaches its climax, but neither is used as a chief shaping agent. So why would my voice, a voice that is reading, not performing, win over an audience. I don’t think the answer lies on either the page or in the performance. I think it lies in presence. Presence is of a body—a form. I become my poem or my poem becomes me, and this thing of the body transcends either entertainment in performance or the sight of the poem on the page. This is the magic of the conversational lyric. Hell, beats me. I know I did not think the poem up. I wrote it one line and word at a time, not knowing ever exactly where I was going: the same way I talk. Maybe people were just being nice.

The other day, I posted a poem of Pablo Medina’s which I published in my second issue of Black Swan back in 1989. I put the magazine out with money from income tax returns. It was an act of love, an act of madness, and four issues went forth into the world before money prohibited my doing anything out of love.

Many of the poets were friends of mine, others friends of friends. In 1990, I published a language poetry issue—probably the only poetry mag in Jersey that did so back in 1990. Robert Kendall was my guest editor for that one, and layout and design went to the Aljira Arts Foundation, then under Victor Davson. Aljira later came into a shit load of grant money. Back then, they were fairly new. For that issue Robert Creeley gave us a poem.

I look back now and realize I published some good poets and fiction writers who later became well-known (or as well known as you might get in literary circles). It represented a wildly eclectic set of poets, fiction writers, and artists. Some of them, including Creeley, are now dead: my best friend, Joe Salerno, Charley Mosler, an unknown jazz poet and pioneer of spoken word, Steward Ross who got angry at me because I cut 14 lines out of one of his poems (it was twenty five lines long), but then used my edited version when he had it published in an anthology, Yictove, who ran the Knitting Factory poetry readings for several years.

One of these friends who is still very much alive is Tom Obrzut. I think Tom is one of the greatest writers of what I call “Wise ass.” “Wise ass” uses the dead pan, absurdism, and just drifting along tone of a comic routine as its chief shaping device. It is post-Lenny Bruce funny, meaning it is not tight and set up like a joke, but wanders over topical terrain, playing with the tropes that run from the silly, and anti-poetic, to the dark humor we might see in certain forms of Eastern European poetry—especially that poetry influenced by dadaism. It is knowing, “hip” in the old style of hip rather than ironic—kind of Steve Martin meets the funnier side of the Beats.

Well, this is an early poem from Obrzut. I think he was only 23 or 24 when he wrote it, and he was a lot prettier than he is now. Some of his newer poetry written by the uglier, older Tom, can be found in Maggy magazine. Tom is so deadpan some people take the poem seriously and don’t laugh, and wonder why this guy would talk about his friend eating four pounds of meat a day. Anyway, the poem:


Vegetarianism

My friend Anthony used to eat four pounds of meat a day.
Now he doesn’t.
I remember once I was a vegetarian.
Jeff says, “everyone was once a vegetarian.”
So it’s not so special
And besides I never ate four pounds of meat a day
except maybe once and that was kielbasi
Which isn’t exactly the same thing because kielbasi’s different
not like bacon or sausage really.

I like eating meat
Allen Ginsberg tells Pollack boys not to eat meat
And the Dalai Lama doesn’t even kill flies
Because he doesn’t want that responsibility.

And neither do I,
But there’s all these microbes on the seat of my pants and when I
sit down they’re screaming in pain and dying.
(Now, I know I’m sounding sarcastic and that’s not what I want to do)
I’m just trying to say—
We’re all busy killing things even ourselves
Which isn’t so great but it’s the way it is, the way it was, and
the way it’ll always be.
Someday, I’m going to die and never listen to Elvis ever again.
And that’ll be a shame.
Not especially for anyone else, but I won’t like it so much.
Not that that matters because even God don’t care—or the void or
whatever it is that powers this machine universe—don’t care
what happens to my ass.
And it’s only sad for me because it’s my ass and I like it.
Maybe that’s what the cow said before they smashed him in the
skull in that slaughterhouse
or maybe he didn’t have time and all he could do was think:
“Too bad, too fucking bad.”
As the end of the world came smashing through his eyes—
the way it always does.

This brilliant piece of wise ass manages to be pro-meat, anti-meat, and to show the absurdity of both positions because it uses the “just talking” wise ass voice of someone thinking out loud. It gets at the larger point of Buddhism: that everything in the world is suffering, and we cannot even breathe or sit down without destroying worlds. This is a far more difficult poem to pull off than the Pablo Medina’s well-crafted deep imagism. It does not have the “gravitas” of Medina’s poetic pallet, but note that it’s lack of gravitas makes the death of the cow that much more terrible (and funny). In its own meandering way, it makes an almost perfect essay on the impossibility of practicing a non-violent existence. We are meat to the universe, and the end of the world comes to us all. So what are the mechanisms of this structure.

Begin with an incidental fact that carries a sense of the ridiculous:

He’s a Dentist Now

My friend Mavis breastfed her children until they were 12.
I mean I thought it was a little quirky, but she was a motherly
type—you know—like the time she made me a quilt of all my favorite characters from Dante’s Inferno?
God I miss her. I thought when they arrested Mavis, it was
excessive. She was nice, always a good word for everyone,
and never a bad, just a good heart—you know what I mean?
The kids are fine—good cheek bones. All that sucking.
Jim, her eldest, went a little crazy for awhile, but don’t we all?
He’s a dentist now, and from what I hear, a really good one.

This ransacks the speaking schtick of Tom, and rambles, but it lacks his sense of voice. Voice cannot be ransacked because true voice, unlike tone, may be inconsistent within its range of indicators. The ability to play a modulating voice against a consistent tone is a deep mystery of poetics—especially of what we might call the conversational poem. Tom does not get outlandish (well he does, but not by creating an extreme situation). To get outlandish would ruin the dead pan. Still, he is absurd, and he uses deadpan and rambling in ways that allow the modulations of consciousness to go just about anywhere without seeming out of bounds.

Of course, if he suddenly gets overtly poetic on us, his poem would fall apart. It is hard to make a lyrical moment out of uber-prosaic lines like “my friend Anthony used to eat four pounds of meat per day.” Tom does what a good poet does—enters his own organic structure of language, and plays his consciousness against that loose structure. It is not the words, or images, but his tone, his timing and rambling that makes his poem work. So here’s your assignment: finish the Mavis poem, and then re-write Tom’s poem, adding poetic imagery. See how it affects the tone or voice? See how far you can take this experiment until the humor of the situation vanishes. You could try writing a pro-meat poem in a voice with a deadly serious, and humorless tone unaware of its own stupidity. Give it a shot.